Nicaragua is the land of fire and water. Running lengthwise through the country is a series of volcanoes…19 of them actually… and vast rift lakes as two major tectonic plates collide. Every day that we rode, we rode by volcanoes. We were welcomed into the country by the tall Volcan San Cristobal, which dominated horizon when we crossed into Nicaragua at El Guasuale and then during our ride to Somotillo and Chinadega. In Chinadega, a city with a colourful fruit and vegetable fruit market on the street with traffic jams of tricycle taxis and the most colourful and playful central plaza we have visited yet with bright swing-sets and slides and even a castle in the corner. We stayed with couchsurfing hosts Gonzalo and his family in their old historic house just behind the Calvario Church and their house was a maze of rooms where one bedroom also functioned as a hallway to the next room.
From Chinadega, it was a flat but windy 40km ride to Leon, the City of Churches. We went volcano boarding down the active volcano, Cerro Negro, which is one of the world’s youngest volcanoes growing over 800m in height in the last 150 years. Cerro Negro literally means Black Mountain because all around the still steaming crater is black lava flows from its last eruption less than 10 years ago. Only in Central America would you be able to hike right up to the impressive double crater of the volcano, where air feels warm from volcanic activity and smells strongly of sulphur, and then basically toboggan down the outside edge of the cone at impressive speeds.
On our 82km ride from Leon to Ciudad Sandino on the outskirts of Managua, we rode past five volcanoes on that ride, three of them active. Tall Volcan Momotombo jutted out into the crater Lake of Managua, letting out puffs of volcanic gases into the baby blue sky. We skirted by the capital city of Managua, weaving through the busy morning traffic where being on bikes seemed to go faster than cars and trucks, on our way to the city of Masaya where we took day trips up to the beautiful Laguna de Apoyo, a beautiful blue crater lake inside of a larger ancient crater and the volcano is still a little active so the water actually gets warmer as you go farther out into the middle of the lake, rather than warmer in the shallow water on the edges in other lakes, and the smoking crater of Volcan Masaya, the heaviest fuming volcano in all of Central America. Spaniards thought that it was the entrance to hell and a priest named Bobodilla put up a cross on the rim to exorcise it. Perhaps not demons but every dusk, the skies are filled with bats leaving the numerous caves formed by lava tunnels and green parakeets return to roost in the walls of the crater, apparently immune to the sulphurous gases that pour out of the Santiago crater. The sulphurous gases form a column rising into the sky and is so thick that you can’t see the other side of the crater except when a strong wind gust blows by. It was hilarious that there was one small part of the parking lot plaza on the rim of the fuming crater that said no parking because of eruption activity. They have the volcano well trained to not erupt in the other parking spaces.
From Masaya, it was a strenuous 16 km ride, all downhill, to Granada on the shores of Lago de Nicaragua. Well, actually it did have the challenge of a strong headwind. Strong winds always add a level to riding since one, you have to pedal harder so you feel like you’re always going uphill to a certain degree (if headwind…which it was…like usual…) and two, you’re always compensating for the force of the wind while you’re riding so if therte is a particularly strong gust…or the opposite, that the wind lets up a bit, you swerve. Add that with increased speeds going downhill beside traffic and things get a bit more exciting.
I found the history of Granada and Leon, two rival important Spanish colonial cities, so fascinating. The grand churches and colonial architecture were meant to impress as Leon, the colonial capital and centre for radical intellectuals and clerics who eventually formed the Liberal Party, has had a long rivalry with Granada, a historically wealthy colonial city due to its placement on the Lago de Nicaragua with its navigable river out to the Caribbean and Europe which eventually developed into the centre for the Conservative Party. Today, continuing its tradition as a politically progressive, intellectual centre, Leon is a lively university city. In Leon, there is the amazing Oritz Gurdian, Nicaragua’s best art gallery housed in four restored colonial homes which themselves are a museum, and old cathedrals and churches including Leon’s Cathedral, which is the biggest in Nicaragua. Construction for this cathedral started in 1747 and lasted over 100 years! The cathedral is a mission statement featuring the tombs of Nicaraguan heroes inside – including important literary figures Ruben Dario, Alfonso Cortes and Salomon de la Selva, and Miguel de Larreynaga, a leading force in the Central American independence movement.
Granada, founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, is considered the oldest European city in Central America. Ironically, Cordoba named Granada after the Spanish city of Granada in honor of the defeat of the last Moorish stronghold Ibut the architecture here in the city has a lot of Moorish influences and the city is nicknamed La Gran Sultana, the Grand Sultan. In contrast to Leon, Granada has a much more Oriental feel to the city and more opulent with fountains and gardens everywhere and delicate hanging lanterns from carved wooden support beam. Other aspects of Granada’s colonial architecture also include baroque styles with lavish use of colours and ornamentation, grandeur in style and symmetry of forms, which developed as a political statement of the wealth and power of the Catholic church in the 16th century. There are also neoclassical elements in the form of white classical columns. The wealth and grandeur of Granada also had its drawbacks and it was an tempting targset for pirates. The city was sacked by pirates three times in the 17th century who often set the “jewel” of Spanish colonies ablaze when they left. It was the start Semana Santa, the Holy Week leading up to Easter, and fireworks have been booming in the skies over the city almost non-stop. In the evenings (and Sunday morning), there has been processions.
Granada was basically our last stop in Nicaragua cycling as we then ferried across the Lago de Nicaragua first stopping for a week chilling in the magical Isla de Ometepe formed by two volcanoes in the middle of the lake and then reunited with Rigel and Erin and Rigel’s dad Pete on the ferry from Ometepe to the end of the lake at San Carlos. San Carlos is a bustling town stradding the openings to the Rio San Juan and Rio Frio with a very frontier feel. Wooden houses with second story balconies to catch the breeze in the hot, humid environment face narrow roads that winded around the busy market and the ruins of fortress in the middle of the town. There is not much that remains of the fortress where Spaniards kept a watch out for pirates except for amazing views and industrious leaf cutter ants with such well used paths that it wore trails into the grass. Children played football (soccer) on the road while fishermen set up little stalls and sold their fish freshly caught and cleaned there on the spot. This town does not have a supermarket but rather all shopping is done at little stalls in the busy market or at little shops people have out of their homes. The waterfront plaza is busy with local eateries and docks where there were boats up the San Juan river and the River Frio to the Costa Rican border. These waterways and the boats that navigate them are the main form of transportion in this area where the road basically ends. We went on a river safari on the maze of wildlife rich waterways and as Pete said, it felt like we were in a nature documentary.
On our last night in San Carlos, as Pete was walking to the bus station to catch the night bus back to Managua for his flight home the next day, we got to see a sloth rescue! There was a sloth hanging from active power lines and the very able local firemen was able to move the sloth from hanging on the power lines to grabbing a pole which they slid down to the ground and into a box. During the rescue, we were able to touch the sloth and the fur was so soft. Sloths have such crazy appendages and don’t look like they have hands at all but rather their arms just end in two long claws – great for hanging in trees….and power lines apparently. Since the street light the power line was attached to was on, the lines were active and I have no idea how it managed to avoid being shocked! The next day, we boarded on a boat down the River Frio to Los Chiles for the water crossing into Costa Rica.
Somotillo to San Carlos via Leon, Cuidad Sandino, Masaya, Granada, and Isla de Ometepe
April 1, 2014 to April 24, 20144
4 nights in Leon, 3 nights in Masaya, 3 nights in Granada, 7 nights on Ometepe and 2 nights in San Carlos
This section consisted of 23.5 days (on first day in Nicargua, we spent the day riding in
Honduras and only crossed the border to sleep at the first town thus the half day)
Day 211 to 235 (of overall trip) in month 7 of the trip
Total km travelled – 361.2 km
Daily average – 31.4 km per riding day
Number of rest days – 12 days
Route – El Guasuale to Somotillo to Chinadega to Leon. Hwy 12 from Leon to Ciudad Sandino and Managua then Hwy 4 to Masaya and Granada. Then we hopped on the ferry to Isla de Ometepe, then a ferry to San Carlos and then a ferry to Los Chiles and Costa Rica!
Weather – 22.5 days sunny, 1 day showers
Accommodation – 23 nights in hotel, 1 night couchsurfing